Three decades after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, sweeping change is on the menu. After opting for a cautious neoliberal social democracy under Alwyn following the return of democracy, more radical change is conceivable The Communist Party has dynamic and popular politicians in the country’s legislature, and their likely presidential candidate, Daniel Jadue, is better positioned in the opinion polls for next year’s election that any candidate they’ve had before, regularly placing in the high teens and reaching as high as 20%.
The most exciting development in Chile though is the rewriting of the constitution that was overwhelming won in a referendum campaign pushed heavily by the Communist Party. It came after long and bitter street protests that were variously violently suppressed, and violently prosecuted. 2019 was wracked with demonstrations and riots: hundreds of people had their eyes shot out in targeted attacks by the police, and on the side of the rioters, widespread arson and vandalism caused $4.6bn in property damage. What was forced out of it was the referendum process, and with the massive people’s victory secured by its result, the Constituent Assembly — not only will there be a new Constitution, but it will be drafted largely by the people. One’s mind turns to the Citizen’s Revolutions that swept Latin America during the pink tide at the beginning of the 20th Century, transforming countries like Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia. A Constituent Assembly is a powerful tool, not only as a process for national restructuring, but in the organization that a campaign for it allows.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French politician who won an unexpected 19% of the vote in the first round of the 2017 French election, and is running again in 2022, developed his theory of the “Citizen’s Revolution” over the course of two books.
In the first (« Qu’ils s’en Aillent Tous! » Vite, la révolution citoyenne, Paris: J’ai Lu, 2011) he introduces the concept like this: “The citizen’s revolution (‘revolución ciudadana’) is the concept proposed in Ecuador by Rafael Correa during the 2006 presidential election which he won. This revolution was in the first place constitutional. It gave by referendum full powers to a National Constituent Assembly. The government was called the ‘Government of the Citizen’s Revolution.’”
“The Citizen’s Revolution,” he continues, “is a revolution of institutions, social relations and of the dominant culture.” Because the word “citizen” is conceptually important here, he takes the time to define it: “an individual who is capable of enunciating not what is good for him, but what is good for everyone.”
Mélenchon elaborated this theory six years later in much more detail with L’Ère du peuple, (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard/Pluriel, 2017). In it, he reveals very clearly to anybody reading that he no longer has a Marxist conception of class struggle. This isn’t a criticism of his theory, which is creative and has its merits. I only write this to emphasize that nobody calling Mélenchon a Marxist has read him; he doesn’t even pretend to be, though his thinking obviously owes a profound debt to the tradition.
Human civilization, Mélenchon writes, faces three great bifurcations. The first is the sheer number of people among its members, an “explosion.” Then, irreversible climate change, the “symptom of a new era in the life of the planet.” And finally, a great rearrangement of the geopolitical order.1 For him, it’s the dramatic rise in population that is most important.
“Each doubling of the global population provokes a radical change in the human condition itself,” he posits.2 He takes inspiration from the Marxist, and sociological, concept that culture flows from the economic structure of a society:
“The number of human beings is not solely a quality! It is a decisive factor in their way of living and their relations between each other and with their ecosystem.
In this sense, human history is before all else that of the fluctuations in the number of individuals which compose it. All other social phenomenons are born more or less directly from this given base.”3
In this book, he refines his conception of the citizen. “In [the] Republic, each one of us is called not to content ourselves with defending what is good for himself. He must act to decide ‘what is good for all.’”4
Another decisive factor for Mélenchon is the change in where the majority of the population now lives. In the 20th Century, 80% of the population lived in the countryside. Now, in the 21st, 60% of the world population lives in urban centers — in Europe and America it’s 80%.
It’s in the intersection of these two trends, a rapidly rising population and that population’s urbanization, that Mélenchon interprets a changing historical role for the classes that constitute modern societies.
He talks of the age of the “laborer’s citadels,” now past, where great concentrations of working people were drawn together in production and social life, and how their end has transformed both the identity of the proletariat and its historical duty. The decline in the historical potency of the proletariat is balanced against the rising numbers of the salariat, a class of white collar salaried workers. But there have been blows against them too: precarious employment, petty tyrant management, and the decline of the unions has diminished their power.
Mélenchon clarifies that this doesn’t mean that any of these classes do not have a role to play. But it does mean that neither of these classes are primary in the process of social change. There is, instead, a different unit of society that will press forward and create change. It is constituted of both these classes, as well as others, but not defined by any one of them. This is because, according to Mélenchon, the moment has come to fight for the “general interest of all of society.” This group is the “people”5 from the title of the book.
Is this analysis simply class conciliation, the end of the concept of capital versus labour for harmony between the two? Mélenchon is careful to define his “people” with some important exceptions:
“‘The people’ are not, in my definition, a soft social appellation which permits the inclusion of exploiters and the exploited, dominant and the dominated, in the same category in the name of a transcendent common mark. This way of speaking and seeing the definition of ‘people’ is that [which is] always assumed by the extreme right. For them, identity…transcends the conflict of interests [between classes] in the name of ethnicity, culture, or religion, which traces the real frontier between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ The Era of the People postulates the necessity of constructing a political lateralization between the people and the oligarchy.”6
The Era of the People, then, is an era of battle between the dominator and the dominated. The dominated swell their own ranks in the course of this struggle by drawing more and more of the dispossessed into their ranks. “But it does not open for a single instant the possibility of a fusion between the two roles…the oligarchy must be destroyed in the general interest of human beings.”
The implications of all this for political organization are profound. If the working class is no longer the class with a historical destiny to lead, what then of the worker’s party? If the arena of politics (political action being defined by Alain Badiou as “[testing] out the truth of what the collective is capable of achieving”)7 still exists, who are its actors? If separate classes, like the proletariat, the peasant, the merchant, or the shopkeep no longer hold any individual historical role, what is their role?
For Mélenchon, these forms are obsolete. And they’re linked to an old context which no longer exists. “Obsolescence in this case has no ideological content. It is exclusively in the domain of the concrete and the practical.” As proof of this he adduces technological forms of communication which abolish the constraints of distance, and the possibilities digital infrastructure create for horizontal expression through coordinating structures automatically.8
Mélenchon’s theory is plausible, and endowed with an optimism that I don’t share. But I think its basic theses are correct. It’s true that working class power is broken, and more and more the world is drawn into an opposition between the resulting mass left over and the ruling class. But this resulting mass is not constituted; it does not recognize itself as a class. And until it recognizes itself as a class, it has no potentiality for radical change. With the defeat of working class power at the end of the twentieth century, and the consolidation of bourgeois power, we now live in a world where the only class with the necessary amount of consciousness to rule is the bourgeoisie. They, who were long in decline with the rise of the working class, found a way to defeat the challenge to their power that they represented. Automation was the lynch pin, but the struggle was not just of an economic shift; they were propelled along greatly by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was the result of an extended process of ideological warfare which ultimately took up residence in the minds of the Soviet counter-revolutionaries who doomed the worker’s state.
Mélenchon’s “people,” then, are theoretical in two respects. First as a theoretical concept in an ideological worldview, then second and crucially in the fact that they do not yet exist.
Is there a possibility of “the people” becoming a useful unit of analyzing society? I think that Mélenchon wrote this book too late, because there was a moment when such an outcome felt plausible to me. In the early twenty-first century, with the defeat of working class power, there was a flux in relations that many non-bourgeois classes tried to exploit. The petty bourgeoisie were in the process of being declassed by the financial crisis of 2008, and they took a moment, through struggles as varied as the WTO protests and the Occupy movement, to try to reassert the power that they were losing. This converged with the efforts of progressive elements within the labor aristocracy throughout America and old Western Europe. These movements seemed to have a chance of breaking through in certain countries (Bernie Sanders in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, Mélenchon in France). The social democratic path is exhausted, which is why Mélenchon is now pursuing a populist path to power. That path is attractive but probably fruitless.
The East has been the real driver of the 20th century, and the rise of China marks a definite turning point in where the axle on which the world will turn is.
It seems certain that China will be the motive force of the history of the second half of the Twentieth Century. And the largest fascist mass party in the world is the fundamental Hindu BJP, which governs India. India is driven by ressentiment, born from the realization of the great inequality that has been the real result of the promise of so much prosperity. In the past you were poor and wretched and hardly knew what you were missing. Now you can be poor and wretched and see on your phone exactly what you’re missing, exactly how much other people have, and exactly what they have. Said Juno in Vergil’s Aeneid, “If I cannot change the will of Heaven, I shall release Hell.”9
The constituent assembly, then, is a compelling alternative to this pessimism. The most critical and cogent criticism to be made of all the left electoral projects that have failed in Western liberal democracies in the past two decades is that they have no horizon. With the alternative of communism gone there was no longer a “threat” to which the social democrats could point and show what was coming if their own demands weren’t met. And because social democratic parties in Europe have largely given up any commitment to building any sort of socialist or communist society, every election cycle the game ends. The option of reform is proffered, it’s taken or it’s declined, and the routine plays out.
With the Constituent Assembly we can change that dynamic. No more demobilization after every defeat – the Constituent is the overriding goal. Not only can a Constituent Assembly transform the way a country (or a state, or a county, or a town) is governed, but it transforms the way socialists and communists engage with elections. It’s instructive like this: it shows that even if elected the entire edifice of bourgeois legality is constructed to impede any efforts at reform. To fix this the rules must be rewritten and the Constitution changed. It’s instructive like this: it shows that solving problems actually requires transforming how a society is governed, not just through governing in that society differently.
Any debate in the United States about whether or not socialized medicine is constitutional is transparently absurd and anti-democratic, for instance. It’s a debate not worth having! If a policy is unconstitutional, it’s not the policy that’s wrong, it’s the Constitution.
With a Constituent Assembly we can change the rules. Chile will change the rules soon and show us the way. If Mélenchon wins in France the rules will change too. And when you change the rules, you also change who rules.
1 Mélenchon, 2017, 10
2 Ibid, 15
3 Ibid, 16.
4 Ibid, 34
5 Mélenchon, 2017, 87-89
6 Mélenchon, 2017, 143
7 Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love, (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 53
8 Mélenchon, 2017, 149-150
9 Virgil, The Aeneid, W.F. Jackson Knight, (London; New York: Penguin, 1958) 184 lines 313-314